Grants Support Chemists’ Work on ‘Soft’ Crystals, Nanotubes and More

For Yale's chemical engineers, summer is clearly not the "slow season"; in the past few months, they've garnered no less than five separate awards and grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund research projects ranging from photovoltaics to nanotubes.

For Yale’s chemical engineers, summer is clearly not the “slow season”; in the past few months, they’ve garnered no less than five separate awards and grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund research projects ranging from photovoltaics to nanotubes.

Among the recipients is assistant professor Chinedum Osuji, who received an NSF CAREER award, one of the foundation’s most prestigious honors for junior faculty who excel at integrating both research and teaching.

While most people think of crystals as being hard substances, Osuji’s research focuses on soft matter crystals. “From the structures in opalescent oyster shells to detergent additives to liquid crystal displays, soft materials are all around us,” Osuji says.

Unlike hard materials, where atoms and molecules are arranged in tightly defined lattices, soft materials tend to be intrinsically less ordered. The goal, says Osuji, is “to create perfect soft crystals,” which means getting all the crystalline structure aligned in a single direction and eliminating disorder. If he can do that, the resulting crystals will have some interesting properties and a wide range of applications, from size-selective molecular filtration, to membranes for batteries and fuel cells, to photovoltaic devices.

But research was only half the equation that went into producing a winning proposal. “There’s a contribution to be made in research, but there’s also definitely a contribution to be made in teaching,” Osuji says. That’s why he created a new graduate class on polymer physics last spring, which went beyond the standard lecture format to include student presentations and lab experiments with real-world applications.

“Writing the proposal for this grant made me think about what I want to do in terms of my research, as well as how I approach teaching,” he says, adding that the award will help him purchase materials and fund graduate students for the next five years.

While much of Osuji’s work focuses on basic research, he’ll also be working on putting some of that theoretical knowledge to the test as co-primary investigator on another of the five NSF grants awarded. He’ll be working with an interdisciplinary team led by Lisa Pfefferle (chemical engineering) and including André Taylor (chemical engineering), Ron Coifman (mathematics) and Sohrab Ismail-Beigi (applied physics). The team has been awarded a three-year, $1.7 million grant to design more efficient and cost-effective solar cells. According to the proposal, “Increasing solar cell efficiency and affordability are critical objectives for achieving energy sustainability.”

Another grant with an environmental focus was awarded to Menachem Elimelech, chair of chemical engineering, and Julie Zimmerman (chemical and environmental engineering and the School of Forestry & Environmental Studies) for their work on designing safer carbon nanotubes — an emerging nanomaterial used in a wide range of products, from fuel cells to bicycles and golf clubs.

Elimelech, who also heads the environmental engineering program, is also working on a different nanotube project with assistant professor Jodie Lutkenhaus. Their goal is to use polymer nanotube structures to boost battery efficiency. “Going to the nanoscale increases the electrode surface area, which increases the current,” explained Lutkenhaus. The team’s radically different approach to battery-technology development earned them an NSF EAGER award, which supports early stage research on untested, but potentially transformative, cutting-edge ideas.

Assistant professor Corey Wilson, the final grant recipient, studies protein folding, assembly and function. He employs applied mathematics and computer science, physical chemistry and experimental protein chemistry to design macromolecules and biological systems with novel properties. “The overarching goal of my research program is to translate our understanding of the fundamental principles of physical biochemistry into useful processes, devices, therapies and diagnostics that will benefit society,” he says.

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